The Decade the Philippines nearly went Game Over- for good

Looking through the iPod my little cousin uses while staying at our place, it’s hard to ignore the dominance of game apps over virtually anything else on it. That’s to be expected isn’t it? He’s a kid, he likes games, there’s really nothing odd about it. Clash of Clans, Angry Birds, Candy Crush and a Flappy Bird clone, were I a bit younger I’d scoff at the selection for being too “casual” and not “hardcore” enough for a nine-year old boy. Yes, some of them feed off the frustration of dealing with poorly programmed action timing, others are well-made variation timers that make you spend or wait and none of them actually gives you a reason to stop playing them. When I was his age, I was begging my dad for tokens to put into video game machines or constantly trying to remember the Konami code to get past level 1 of Contra. The “GAME OVER” screen is a forgotten sight in the world of gaming today that my cousin would probably never know, but just a few decades ago, the Philippines almost went GAME OVER for good.

Everyone in one way or form has a gaming device today. Personally, I have a high-end laptop that is decent for gaming, an iPhone which has a couple of games and a 3DSxl which I use whenever I’m away from home. My brothers and I share a PS3 in our room and have a decent-sized library of games. It’s hard to imagine that had history not taken the turns they did in the Philippines, we might not have any of the gaming devices we have here today.

Early gaming in the Philippines

While the United States were buzzing over computers, processors and the latest Atari, the Philippines had just been introduced to its first gaming devices, the video machine. Unlike the relatively portable consoles coming out in the west, video machines were big clunky machines that came with their own CRT monitors, joy sticks and power supply. They were like table-tops, flat surfaced with opposing players facing one another from either end. The moment Pacman first booted up with his hunger for pellets and fruits, the bright yellow dot had the Filipinos at the palm… of his… ehem… hands (I guess?).

Immediately the revolutionary video machines became a sensation. Filipino youths went out from their houses with as much change as they could in order to feed the hungry wooden beast in exchange for another shot at clearing the stage of yellow dots. Like a wild fire on a dry forest the popularity grew and spread throughout Manila, soon you couldn’t walk down Recto without hearing the familiar “wakka-wakka”.

My dad who had an ice cream parlor along Recto at the time experienced the craze first hand. He found the machines so lucrative that he planned to re-structure his entire store around the table-top money makers. In a single day, one machine earned him close to three thousand pesos which during the time was worth a lot more. All he needed to do was plug on the machines, open up his shop and make sure he had enough coins to break up his customer’s bills. That it came with such a hefty price tag was of no consequence to him, the machines were paying off so well they were paying for themselves in a matter of weeks!

“The problem,” he said, “there were too many greedy people that wanted to earn from it too.” After Chinese companies were able to copy the mother boards and program chips, cheaper and more affordable versions of the video machines flooded into the ports of Manila. Anyone who could raise a few thousand pesos to invest on a machine could afford one, from then it was simply a matter of looking for a power outlet and waiting for the money to come to them. Recto was lined up with octopus wires, extension cords and noisy video machines, occupied by students, kids and children regardless of whether or not they should have been in school during those hours. My dad even joked that before leaving to attend his own classes, he would see his store filled with students from a neighboring university and shout, “Check attendance!”

Regulation and Prohibition

Reports of the decline in school attendance and increase of juvenile delinquency eventually hit the ears of then President Marcos. At first, his remedy was to enforce regulations on owning and operating the video machines. No high school students allowed, far from schools, no gambling, no this, no that. Unfortunately, these regulations cut away the very demographics that made it such a lucrative business in the first place. Operators then resorted to bribing the enforcers to look the other way when it came to students inside their shops, nothing changed, the status quo stayed.

Years before, President Marcos had already passed Presidential Decree 519 which outlawed gambling devices as well as pin ball machines. Mid-year of 1981, rumors were spreading that President Marcos was planning to outlaw video machines as well. The video machine operators banded together to come up with a sizeable offering to appease the “gods”, but selfishness and disunity prevented them from reaching a consensus with smaller operators passing the bill to bigger ones and the bigger ones passing it off to the distributors until nobody wanted to cough up the dough. True enough, on June of that year, Marcos signed Letter of Instruction 1176 s. 1981 with this fatal provision:

“WHEREAS, I consider video machines within the classification of “similar contrivances”, under LOI No. 9 and “other devices” under PD 519.”

Gaming, though in its infancy, in the Philippines, was f**ked.

Not only was it illegal to operate a video machine business in the Philippines, just getting caught owning one of these machines could’ve landed you in jail. No amount of permits and government backing would’ve been enough to allow you to keep one of them. Needless to say, the streets were cleared, operators were forced to close shop and machines on which Pacman, Galaga, and Donkey Kong could be played on were destroyed.

Upon catching wind of the news, my dad immediately called up a supplier of his that was bringing in a shipment from Taiwan that day. The importer told him they were already at the port and ban or no ban, my dad would have to pay for them. Knowing he had no choice but to pay for them, my dad told the importer that as long as he could get all the units he ordered down from that ship and into his store, he would pay him every centavo he owed him. A few minutes later his phone rang again with the importer at the other end telling him that port authorities warned him that the moment those machines touched Philippine soil, they would be confiscated and he would be arrested, leaving him no choice but to turn around and bring them elsewhere.

As to the units he already had, my dad had no choice but to sell them to a middleman who was going to take them to Clark, Pampanga which was then still USA territory, thus exempt from the total prohibition. He cut his losses and sold all of his units at a fraction of the price he bought them except for one which still sits in our living room today. Throughout my childhood I only remember powering that machine up once, it was big, bulky, dusty, ran on 110 volts and it played Pac-man, I wasn’t very good at Pac-man.

The One that lived- After disposing of the other units, my dad kept this video machine at home where it still sits next to our door. After sustaining heavy water damage from Ondoy, it has been reduced to unassumingly awesome retro furniture.

The One that lived- After disposing of the other units, my dad kept this video machine at home where it still sits next to our door. After sustaining heavy water damage from Ondoy, it has been reduced to unassumingly awesome retro furniture.

Beyond the reach of the law

While all was chaotic and downright depressing for gaming in Manila, apparently in further away places like Parañaque, gaming was alive and well, unfazed by the all-out ban set by the dictator. According to my friend Miguel, a certain video game center which still operates today defied the total ban and continued to cater to the dot-munching, gorilla-chasing cravings of the Filipino youth those times. He told me of his father’s recollections as a college student during that very era, paying constant visits to that video game shack to blow off some steam.

While I only know of one area where gaming was able to live on in the Philippines, it’s almost certain that more areas had similar operators who sank into the darkness of obscurity and anonymity, making it so that authorities pay them no heed at all, allowing the Filipino gamer to grow.

End of prohibition

Through the EDSA People Power Revolution President Marcos was forced to flee the Philippines, with him, his tyrannical ban on gaming in the Philippines. There was no sudden proclamation that it was legal again, no “on” switch that suddenly flipped to power up the table-top cabinets, it just happened. Once again arcade cabinets were being seen inside malls, people once again allowed to enjoy having Jumpman save his girl or Pac-man gobble up ghosts out in the open, in public with nothing to fear. His old suppliers asked my dad if he wanted back in on the video machine operating gig, he declined having already been burned once before. He had enough of running it as a business, instead, he thought of just keeping it at home.

Fortunately the ban was lifted when it was. Roughly a few years after the trauma of the video machine ban was starting to heal, Nintendo started becoming a household name in the Philippines. We were fortunate enough to have been able to afford a Family Computer. Mario, Rockman, the Battle City tanks were some of the first images my then young eyes ever saw. It allowed for the next generation of Filipinos to enjoy home-based consoles and explore a world that would have otherwise been denied.

Under what is called statutory construction, a systematized way by which the Court interprets the law, had the ban still been effective, it would have included the Family Computer in its ban. Had there been no Family Computer in the Philippines, there would have been no Super Nintendo Entertainment System, no Nintendo 64, no Gameboy, no Gamegear, no Playstation, no Xbox, no PCs, nothing. Technically the Presidential Decree and the letter of instruction that followed it have yet to be repealed or amended to this day. Fortunately society no longer sees video games as the menace it once was and just chooses to let it be.

It’s sobering to know that what is now a great part of many Filipinos’ lives could have been taken away from them had history taken a turn for the worse. While there are those who would have been thankful for being void of Candy Crush, Farmville, Flappy Bird and other money-making or otherwise uninspired games, it would also have meant that we would never have had the opportunity to explore Hyrule, Skyrim, Midgard, Rapture, Columbia and all the other awesome places where we had experiences we would never have had in real life.

The next time we pick up our gaming device, be it a gaming PC, console or mobile device, let’s take a moment to remember how easily these could have been denied from us.